What is the personality of the Internet? This is a question that has crossed my mind many times, and it is not answered simply.
When there are quite literally millions of voices competing for attention on the web, is it even possible to begin to identify a singular, representative personality trait? By “listening” to the conversation, I believe that you can.
For years, the Internet wasn’t a place where it was “cool” to like, compliment, or otherwise support people, causes, performances, or much of anything else. I believe that there are signs, however, that this may not be a permanent condition. In fact, I think that the more “social” aspects of the web are a driving factor in this maturation of the Internet’s personality. A cynic might argue that you can take a look at a political news story’s comment section or even a YouTube video (almost any, at random), and be sickened by the discourse contained within. However, to use one of my favorite analogies, this isn’t a speedboat that we’re trying to turn around, it’s a cruise ship; it takes time.
Take a moment and think about what truly goes viral these days – and by viral (in this case), I do not mean a meme that takes off on your college’s campus. I mean something that your parents hear about and that you hear mentioned on The Daily Show: nearly full cultural saturation. Suggestions to the contrary are welcome, but most of the examples that I can come up with in recent memory are rather positive. One of my favorite examples of this type of organic, viral growth was Marilyn Hagerty’s review of a brand new Olive Garden in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The review is so earnest and devoid of irony or sarcasm that it is almost jarring to read at first. If you’ve become accustomed to reading articles on The Onion, in which every sharply biting story is delivered with a straight face, Hagerty’s review almost reads as parody (If you need proof of this fact, see this actual article from The Onion from 2001: http://www.theonion.com/articles/olive-garden-voted-best-italian-restaurant-in-annu,3256/). The people of the Internet began sharing the sincerely-written review and it quickly went viral, resulting in the 85-year old garnering attention from major media outlets. This sharing likely would not have happened if the content creators on the web didn’t find the piece a little bit funny in how straightforward it was, but the viewing audience rallied around Hagerty. In total, the original article has been shared over 80,000 times on Facebook and Twitter alone to date. It’s almost hard to imagine, a stunningly simple act of a local newspaper writeup of an Olive Garden capturing the attention of the masses, but that’s what happened. The commenters and sharers of the piece were largely positive in the end, according to news sources and Hagerty herself, and it may be evidence that the void of sincerity on the Internet may yet be filled.
Very much enjoying watching Internet sensation Marilyn Hagerty triumph over the snarkologists (myself included) blogs.villagevoice.com/forkintheroad/…
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) March 8, 2012
This brings me to one of the folks out there that I believe symbolizes the web’s newly found desire for cynicism-free zones, Jimmy Fallon. Since he took over as host of Late Night, Fallon has been unabashedly positive not only on his show but also in his social media presence. Evidence A: A faithful, non-winking version of Carly Rae Jepson’s 100% pop hit “Call Me Maybe,” with the singer herself and The Roots, all played on children’s classroom instruments:
Note the lack of any sort of irony. Just a pure, happy tribute to a pop song that made lots of people happy. That video was viewed over 13 million times on YouTube and has a 30:1 ratio of “thumbs up” to “thumbs down” on that site, which is almost unfathomable considering the reputation of viewer feedback on there.
Evidence B: Late Night content that is prime Internet Fodder, “Puppies Predict the Super Bowl.” Nothing sarcastic, mean-spirited, or angry about it, it’s just puppies eating food and predicting the Super Bowl winner.
How does content like this survive the environment that is often seen as nasty and unwelcoming to anyone who tries to have fun and be true to their own sensibilities? I propose that it’s part of a new era for the Internet, one in which the snark survives, but the sincere becomes a balancing force. It may even mark (I almost don’t want to jinx us by saying it)…a growing maturity within the web.
As noted earlier, the personality of the web is a slow moving but constantly changing construct. Mass access to the Internet is a relatively new development, and social media may just be the yearbook that is now capturing the web’s awkward transition years. My hope is that as we move forward, our web content reflects a steady maturation. After all, I’ve read enough cynical Yelp restaurant reviews to know that it wouldn’t be so bad to have a few more Marilyn Hagerty’s out there .